Two years ago, when Mille Lacs was embroiled in controversy over hooking mortality, I pondered the big mess the big lake was in and wondered how it might be cleaned up.
Problems went beyond hooking mortality. Sport harvest had exceeded its quota and the huge "overage," a newly coined word spawned on Mille Lacs, would have to be dealt with. Then there was Dick Sternberg's claim that Mille Lacs walleyes were starving.
Knowing he's never reluctant to voice his opinion, I sent an e-mail to Joe Fellegy, former guide, long-time area resident and observer of all things Mille Lacs, and asked what he would do if given power to set a course for the lake. Surprisingly, Fellegy declined comment. His brief reply ended with -- and I paraphrase loosely here -- "What does it matter what I think? That's why we have state-hired fisheries biologists."
So imagine my surprise when I turned to Page 40 of the Feb. 13 edition of Outdoor News, a Minnesota weekly, and found this headline: "Proposed resolutions for Mille Lacs Fishery Input Group." The resolutions were written by Fellegy and presented to the Input Group on Feb. 4.
Fellegy had finally weighed in, and I don't mean a limit of walleyes at the Wave Wacker. From a quote attributed to him on the same page, he sounded downright fed up.
"I'm looking at the bigger picture," Fellegy said when asked what motivated his resolutions. "I think it's intolerable that a major sport fishery has to be turned upside down and perennially run through the meat grinder -- socially, economically, image-wise and from a resource management standpoint -- because of the presence of tribal harvest! This thing is way out of proportion, way too costly on many fronts. Thousands of anglers and Mille Lacs resorters know it's unfair and over the edge. And what many are asking is if this really is what state officials envision for the future of Mille Lacs."
Fellegy said his resolutions got near unanimous approval from the 22 members of the 40-member Input Group who attended the Feb. 4 meeting. The lone dissenting vote was cast against Resolution Three.
This strikes me as radical stuff. Take the first resolution: "State leadership must convince the court that change is necessary. The present system is too costly and must go."
Who in state government would take that on? Last year, when DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam suggested that current policy on Mille Lacs was misguided -- "apartheid" was used to describe it, howls of protest from the Indian community forced him to apologize. Nobody in the DNR or elsewhere in state government publicly supported Merriam, probably through fear that they would be looked upon as racist. The most notable lack of support was from his boss, Gov. Pawlenty.
In the second resolution Fellegy says, "We urge the Minnesota governor and the state Legislature to seek a new presidential order to extinguish the 1837 tribal harvest privilege."
Again, who would take that on? The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe. Seems to me that President Bush has heavier matters to ponder right now than extinguishing a Supreme Court decision regarding a lake in Minnesota.
I asked DNR Deputy Commissioner Mark Holsten, who attended that Feb. 4 meeting, if he discussed Fellegy's resolutions with Merriam. The answer was no, that he and the commissioner were working on deciding the slot limits that were reported Friday. But Holsten said the fourth resolution would become policy.
"We'll start tracking our costs," Holsten said, "so we can lay them out for people who have questions. The other three resolutions we need to discuss internally. We need an education as to what they would mean."
What they would mean is an end to tribal harvest, or at least a significant change in how Mille Lacs is managed.
In a July 21, 2002 interview in The Dispatch, Curt Kalk, Mille Lacs Band commissioner of natural resources, was asked if the band would agree to a buyout of its fishing rights.
"Never," Kalk said. "Our inherent right to fish is not for sale. There's no dollar value to put on it. That's part of the whole thread of life here. That would never be put on the table."
Well, the Input Group just put it on the table.
I called Kalk on Tuesday and asked him what he thought of Fellegy's resolutions.
"It seems as if some of these (pause), the people who voted on this 10 years ago, knew the consequences of what they were doing," Kalk said. "One of those people I believe is now the commissioner of the DNR of Minnesota.
"I don't understand the first one. What would we stop doing? Do they want sole management of the lake?
"The second one seems to say, 'We lost the lawsuit but we don't want to live with this so take it all away. But if you go to court and lose you can't say, 'Take it all back and make it go away.'
"The third one I can't see going to (Merriam) in this form. The meetings are secret because we discuss biological issues. The state would have to bring that to the other co-managers. It doesn't say who else would be allowed at the meetings. If the sate wants to bring that forward they can do that.
"All of this adds up to one thing: It's done. I feel the bands and state are on the right track. We've worked hard to give them what they want. Before they were locked into a certain harvest level and couldn't go over it. Now they can. The state wanted flexibility and they have that. The bands need their subsistence and we have that. Now something else is wrong. The pPedge of Allegiance says 'justice for all.' I don't know what kind of person would put forth these resolutions."
Kalk didn't mention, or chooses to overlook, two important points. The Supreme Court didn't order the tribe and the state to co-manage Mille Lacs. All the court said was that the tribe had the right to take fish. It also didn't say the tribe has the right to use gill nets to catch their fish. That was agreed on between the tribe and the DNR.
I'll be surprised if Fellegy's first two resolutions get serious consideration. It would take Gov. Pawlenty's or Sen. Norm Coleman's lead, and I don't think they want to do it. Then again, Pawlenty recently called on the Legislature to apply "that special Minnesota spirit" to changing how the state approaches everything from gambling to education funding. Could "that special Minnesota spirit (whatever that is) be applied to Mille Lacs?
The time might be now or never. Bush could be on his way out in November. Chief executives do strange things in their final hours.
Fellegy's third and fourth resolutions have a more realistic chance of becoming policy. Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, has introduced two bills in the Legislature that basically support those two resolutions. One (HF-1800) would force the DNR to make public by Jan. 3, 2005, all expenses incurred in Mille Lacs treaty management. The other (HF-2069) would force the state/tribal technical committee meetings to be opened to the public.
Both bills are an attempt to make the DNR and the tribe more accountable, and accountability is supposedly a primary theme of the Merriam-led DNR.
So maybe Fellegy isn't a lone voice crying in the wind?
When I talked to Rep. Erickson she said she hadn't seen Fellegy's resolutions, but that the paper containing them was on her desk. I waited as she read them.
"Neither of us knew what the other was doing," Erickson said minutes later. "But we both think the same way. It's ironic that at the same time he was writing this I was in St. Paul introducing these bills. We both have a grave concern for Mille Lacs and its future.
"I will pursue ways," Erickson continued, "to help the Bush administration understand the effects of the Supreme Court decision, and that having a major lake with different rules for tribal and non-tribal fishermen just isn't working."
So it appears Mille Lacs is headed for another pass through -- to use Fellegy's term -- the "meat grinder."
What'll we get this time? A new flavor of sausage, or a whole new cut of meat?
By the way, how many days until the opener?
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